Youth Running Primer
From the desk of a Middle School Cross-Country Coach
Coaching Middle School and Youth runners is very different from coaching high school and college athletes. It is not, however, necessarily easier.
Our job as coaches of young athletes is to not only introduce the sport but also to help kids find their "inner athlete."
We want our athletes to come away with the understanding that running competitively is different than any other kind of running. As a Youth Running Coach I introduce the ideas behind competition, strategy and preparation to kids. Middle School is a great time to do this. Kids are beginning to take interest in themselves as athletes and are no longer tethered so strongly to their parent's visions for them.
We pick up where they playground leaves off. When young kids are on a playground most of them already know who the fastest runners are. Showing them how they can make their own running faster and stronger will tickle the competitive side of a young person quickly and get them to develop an interest in their own athletic ability. Once that happens, if you have a good program, coaches that love kids and a school that supports the sport, you are in business.
A Coaches Perspective Matters
It is about them, not you.
It is not terribly difficult to coach at the youth level even if you are not, first, a runner. You need two things- an effective coaching plan and the ability to communicate effectively with kids. To have an effective coaching plan you need to understand why you are doing different things in training. You need to be able to break down the basics to create a program plan. You need to educate yourself about training cycles, proper form, effective drills and exercises that contribute to the runners understanding of their sport. You need to begin the process of showing a runner how to get the most from their bodies. You need to know more than you are presenting in practice. This is imperative because running can have high rates of injuries when programs get too intense too quickly or a coach cannot recognize soreness from injury. You need to know as much what not to do as what to do with young runners. This is coaching wisdom and is part learned by experience and part learned by understanding the sport.
The other part of coaching is about communicating with your athletes. Being positive and caring, while not hard, takes effort and must be deliberate. Your relationship to your athletes is extremely important. You must come to the sport every single day from the kids' perspective. The success the team has is about them, not about you. Excellent coaches can have strong and competitive teams or teams that are middle road. Rarely will an excellent coach have a terrible team. This is because an excellent coach gets kids to care about their performance and about their team. An athlete's performance shows when they care. It won't make everyone state level runners, but it will make them competitive. I say this coming from a mandatory participation program.
Coaching A Middle School Team
The Basics are Primary
Getting an athlete to the starting line takes a lot of preparation, but maybe not the kind you expect. As a Middle school coach, you often do not have a lot of time to physically prepare an athlete for an optimal race. Rest assured, much of the value of a Middle School program is the experience. It is at this level that an athlete learns what it feels like to put on a uniform and maybe even spikes. An athlete develops pre-race and post-race habits. An athlete goes through the emotions of anticipation, racing, finishing. Athletes starts to learn what kind of runner they are and want to be. These are the basics and are vital.
Learning About "Team"
Chances are this is not your athletes first exposure to teams. Many have played in local leagues or travel teams of one sort or another. In Middle School, however, the athlete is experiencing "team" completely on their own terms for the first time. Transferring their understanding of team from their parents influence to their own journey begins here. As a coach you need to deliberately work this understanding into practice and competition by providing true opportunities for your athletes to develop leadership and learn about personal accountability. This must be done safely and with support so your athletes make good choices.
Running is not about how far you go, it is about how far you've come.